Spring is here! It seems to be the time of year we especially think about love and relationships. We all seem to want to be in a romantic, loving relationship. I recently attended the wedding of a dear friend who was getting remarried at the age of 72! As I shared this happy news with friends who were single, they commented,”There's hope!” Again, it seems that we all want to be in a truly loving relationship with a partner, someone to happily share our lives with.
In my some thirty years as a mental health counselor, I have counseled many people to help them improve their relationships, to find love, and to deal with relationship issues. Along the way, I've learned a few things about what makes for a happy, thriving relationship whether you are looking to start a new relationship or wanting to improve your existing one.
Let's start with beginning a new relationship. We seem to want it so much that we tend to rush the process and this does not work. It takes time to get to know someone and to develop a relationship. Good things cannot be rushed. Think of the farmer anxious to harvest the corn deciding to pick it before it's ready or the pregnant woman deciding to have her baby before it's term! It probably takes at least two years to really get to know someone and that's with regular, in person, contact. It's not a long distance relationship where you occasionally see the person. It's also living through challenging experiences that helps you get to know someone. Living in Colorado, I would say that climbing a fourteener together and traveling to a third world country really helps you get to know someone. Though we don't wish tragedy on any relationship probably the way you really get to know someone is by experiencing adversity together.
Just as it takes time to get to know someone, what you see is what you get. In other words, the person you get to know is the person. Don't go into a relationship thinking you or your love is going to change the other person because it's not. If there are “red flags” pay attention, they aren't going away. And, if there's some kind of “deal breaker”, something you know you can't live with, walk away.
Another important way to get to know someone is to get to know their friends and family. The relationships they have tell you a lot about how they are in relationships. Are they able to talk about issues in their relationships, past or present? We all have had them. When they talk about adult relationships from the past, do they take any level of responsibility for break ups, or is it all the other person's fault?
To get what you want, you need to know what it is. If you are looking for a new relationship, you need to know what you really want. I suggest making a list of the characteristics of the ideal person you would like to be in a relationship with. Put everything on the list. Something may be negotiable but you'll know the things that really matter, that you cannot compromise on.
What if you are already in a relationship you would like to make better? Well, we've done a lot of research on what makes for a happy, thriving relationship. One of the essential requirements for a successful relationship is spending special time together on a regular basis, as in weekly. This is time for just the two of you and the focus is on just enjoying being with each other. It's not time to talk about problems or concerns. It's a time to have fun. It doesn't necessitate spending a lot of money or even going out. Just enjoying being together. Unfortunately, we get caught up in day to day life with jobs, children, and other obligations and tend to neglect this time. This is the opportunity to maintain and build the positive feelings between the two of you.
Every relationship needs good communication. The most important part of communication is listening and understanding. Notice, I did not say agreeing with. It's not the same thing. However, I believe that one of the most loving things you can do for another person is to truly listen to them. Not pause while you prepare your response or get defensive and shut them out but to truly listen. Listening involves really focusing on the other and getting what they are saying. We call this “active listening”, where you look them in the eye, make responses that indicate you're with them, and ask open-ended questions to get more information. You remember those open-ended questions, don't you- Who? When? Where? and How? I don't include Why? as that's not usually a helpful question. (The most likely responses are: “Because!” and “I don't know”.) Then, you summarize what it is you are hearing the person saying, to make sure you've got it right. Then, take turns. It may take a bit of time but a lot less time and with a much more positive result than fighting.
Then, every relationship needs a constructive way to address negative concerns. There are always some of those, right? The best way to express your concerns is to use what are called “I statements” It goes like this: I feel ___________ (put in feeling word) about ________ (put in subject). For example, “I get frustrated when you leave your dirty underwear on the bedroom floor and don't pick it up.” You're not calling your partner names or making them responsible for your feelings, you are just expressing how you feel and what the problem is for you.
Next, we move on to problem-solving. We do this in a meeting type style. When there is an issue that needs to be discussed either person can call a meeting. Set aside about an hour of uninterrupted time to talk about the matter. The person who has the issue goes first, talking about their thoughts and feelings. The other person listens. Then, when the first person feels they've expressed what the need to, they switch and the second person gets to respond and be listened to. Then, both brain storm a variety of solutions, then go through and evaluate each one, then select one to try. Lastly, pick a reasonable time frame to meet again and see how the solution is working.
Relationships are precious and we do have to work at them but where would we be without them? Whether you want to improve a current relationship or begin a new one, take the time and make the effort to have it be the best. You deserve it!